Wednesday, 6 October 2010

London: Open City Days

Erno Goldfinger in front of the Balfron Tower

The annual London Open House weekend provides a great opportunity to have a look around buildings not normally accessible to the public, or to see the hidden parts of those which are. Plotting a trail between the places featured in the distinctive light green booklet, you can gain a sense of the accreted archaeological layers of history which go to make up the character of the city. Heading East on a Pope avoiding schedule, we concentrated mainly on the uppermost of those layers, although a few days earlier we had followed Dan Cruickshank’s trail through the City from the Time Out Book of London Walks, which had taken us down hidden alleyways past old chophouses (Simpsons' in Ball Court, off Cornhill) and Georgian town houses (1&2 Laurence Pountney Hill) existing alongside the monumental architecture of financial institutions old and new. To arrive at the first Open House building we made our way through the early morning quiet of the freshly cleaned and immaculately fashionable streets of Shoreditch, taking a turn down an unpromising side street where we came quite suddenly upon 22/23 Bateman’s Row. This is a building which was up for this year’s RIBA Stirling Prize for architecture (it lost out to the grander and more showy MAXXI Museum in Rome, designed by Zaha Hadid) and is itself partly the offices for its architects Theis and Khan. It manages to pack quite a lot into a small space, with a gallery space on the ground floor and in the basement and flats above the office level. Architectural partners (in both senses) Soraya Khan and Patrick Theis live in the top floor apartment, which looks South towards the aggressively encroaching edge of the City. For those unfamiliar with local parlance, the predominantly financial district built upon the foundations of the London’s original limits (there’s still a stretch of the old Roman wall hidden away in the Barbican’s maze) is confusingly referred to as The City, identifiable only through its ostentatious capitalization, which is obviously of no use in conversation. If you’re already in the city you can talk of going to The City and people will generally understand what you’re on about. If you’re outside, things just get confusing. Like the Vatican City in Rome, it’s a condensed city within a city, with its own abstruse and deliberately opaque rules which give its inhabitants the feel of being insiders possessed of a secret knowledge which sets them apart from the common crowd.

Bateman's Row
Bateman’s Row looks very solid inside, with exposed concrete surfaces prevalent throughout, giving the feel that you are directly in touch with the mass of the building. This may or may not be a good thing, depending on your taste. I find these concrete interiors very cold and oppressively weighty. Fine for a functional space such as an office, but not for somewhere you’re going to live in. We only had access to the office and the gallery, so I can’t judge what the apartments are like. They look airy and light, although the photos show them in an uninhabited state, without the clutter of day to day living. Modernist flats often seem to assume (or seek to create) a very ascetic, austerely minimalist way of life, at odds with the consumer whirl of the outside world. The glass walls of the fourth floor living room level reminded me of the flats in Jacques Tati’s Playtime, box-like vivariums in which lives are exposed to the scrutiny of the passing public. In this case, the large open room is on a level with an elevated stretch of the new Overground (which is like the Underground only not underground) which regularly rumbles past on the other side of the road. This is not a house for those who crave privacy, who want their home to be a retreat from the outside world once the front door has been shut. As such, it is perhaps ideal for the exhibitionist nature of its location. The notes refer to its ‘contextual’ nature, which, in architect-speak, means it fits in with its surroundings. It’s ideal for the type of person for whom lifestyle is an exhibition. The Shoreditch area has been much mocked and caricatured, often by its own highly self-aware inhabitants, for its overbearing style uber alles ethos, so there seems little point in adding more of such comments to an already over-chronicled quarter. The art conversation in the ground floor gallery, which was in fact used as a fancy furniture shop (or ‘interiors space’ as they put it), centring around a chair which was referred to as a ‘piece’, did little to dispel such preconceptions, however. The building is externally walled with brick, another aspect of its contextuality, a surface conservatism. Once inside, though, it conspicuously uses large amounts of concrete (you couldn’t slide down the banister, but you probably ride a go-kart down its foundation), which is left exposed and makes for a firm re-assertion of modernist principles. There’s never much doubt that this is a place built by and for architects, with a fetishization of materials which seems stubbornly intent on making a point. Concrete in an office is appropriate, I suppose; It’s a functional work space. But in a home, it just seems to be inviting cracked heads, and feels like a crushing mass pressing down and hemming you in. It’s a cliché to say of a work of art that it’s interesting, but you wouldn’t want it hanging on your wall (a common comment which reveals a notional and historical division between art encountered in a gallery and art which is lived with in the home). This is a functional and well designed, if rather indistinctive building; interesting, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Blake's grave - Bunhill Fields
Doubling back through the side streets of Shoreditch, we headed West, the monumental Gormenghast towers of the Barbican casting their shadows over the rooftops, emerging from time to time like giant gnomons to mark time and distance. We made a small detour into the Bunhill Fields graveyard to see William Blake’s burial place. It’s marked by a humble gravestone, the inscription ambiguously stating that he and his wife Catherine lie nearby. Such offhandedness seems to point to the unimportance of the whereabouts of their earthly remains. The immortal (and immaterial) spirit was always the vital flame, the font of imaginative vision. Someone had set a small potted plant before the headstone. Not a wildflower, but maybe heaven can be seen in a bunch of begonias too.

Marx Memorial Library - Clerkenwell Green

Our next port of call was the Marx Memorial Library on Clerkenwell Green, where we were given a tour by a friendly and well-informed gentleman who was presumably part of The Movement to which he made recurrent reference. The use of this term ‘the Movement’ lends a feeling of unity to the various left-wing groups whose history the contents of the building preserve, but who were actually often bitterly opposed to one another. The small garden which contains a memorial plaque and statue to the local printworkers who fought and died in the Spanish Civil War stands as testimony to this, the Republicans having been riven with internal disputes. The house in which the library is contained has metamorphosed over time from its original use as a charity school for the poor children of local Welsh artisans when it was built in 1738. It was divided into workshops (this was always, from the 18th century onwards, an area of small artisanal businesses, notable in particular for its concentration of watchmakers), turned into a pub and coffee rooms (the kind of places were radical ideas and plans could be hatched) and housed the radical London Patriotic Society from 1872, which numbered Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor amongst its active members. From now on it would be a centre of London radicalism. The socialist Twentieth Century Press moved in there in the early twentieth century (Clerkenwell also being a centre of the printing trade), their future assured by a donation from William Morris, and it became a library in 1933, an anti-Nazi gesture in the year that Hitler came to power, their aim being to preserve the written word rather than burn it. The director of the Twentieth Century Press, Harry Quelch, also paid host to a visiting radical from Russia by the name of Lenin from 1902 to 1903, allowing him to share his office and use the press to print his radical paper Iskra (The Spark), copies of which were smuggled back into his native country. This room is now carefully preserved and has something of the air of a shrine, its surfaces covered in busts of those iconic features, many probably chucked out in the post Communist house clearances in Russia and Eastern Europe. A book contains the signatures of the many visitors who have come to pay their respects over the years. Gorbachev was mentioned as one, the acceptable face of Communist leadership. There are probably many others who had carved their positions in the Party hierarchies of Russia and Eastern Europe and had done their bit to add to the misery and despair of people’s lives.

We got to see the tunnels, which rumour has it extend to the 11th century Knights Templar church across the way (you can always rely on the Templars to add a bit of urban mythology to an area). These are now stuffed with history, warrens of books, pamplets and papers. A copy of the Morning Star (whose headquarters also used to be in this area) lay face up atop a pile, its headline announcing the death of Stalin. Despite the flimsiness of this paper, now over half a century old, it acted as a heavy historical bookend, marking a point whose aftermath would cause ‘the Movement’ to retreat into reflection and a redirection of its perspective and priorities. Certainly the mural upstairs, painted by Viscount Hastings in 1934 and heavily influenced by Diego Rivera, now seems like an almost comical reflection of a long lost era, with Lenin, Marx and others looking approvingly on as a brawny and bare chested chap (Communist iconography always did tend towards the homoerotic) tears down the apparatus of church and state in an apocalyptic tumble of John Martin proportions. Its unwieldy and rather redundantly self-explanatory title is ‘The Worker of the Future Clearing Away the Chaos of Capitalism’. Good luck, mate. Even if such political sentiments are difficult to take seriously today, lefties tend to be a friendly lot, and tea was on offer for the weary traveller. Served in Lenin mugs, of course. Perhaps such revolutionary crockery might have been one bit of commodification of which he would have approved.

NOT the Balfron - Carradale House
With Farringdon and Barbican stations closed we made our way to Bank and took a front seat for the fairground ride on the DLR (the Docklands Light Railway), heading back East to Blackwall to go and see the baby brother of brutalist architect Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower. Actually, the Balfron Tower is the baby in size only, since it was actually built first, being completed in 1967, when high rise optimism was still in the air. It looms like a beacon above the traffic-choked environs of the Blackwall Tunnel approach. I may indeed have mistaken the distinctive column of its service shaft for some kind of watchtower on the many childhood occasions when my mum drove through the tunnel and emerged on the north side of the river. It’s actually the second of Goldfinger’s towers on the Brownfield Estate, the Carradale (both it and the Balfron being named after Scottish towns south of Glasgow, Poplar apparently having some connections with the area) which you notice first when approaching from the DLR station. The Balfron is initially seen end on, in profile, and hides its true face until you are in the middle of the estate. Both have that distinctive form familiar from Trellick, with the separate tower joined to the main body of the building by enclosed walkways, which extend their tendrils every three floors. The towers form the entrance points and also contain the service elements of the building, which are thus kept at a distance from the living areas. The bulge at the top is where the boiler room is located. But it also serves as a sculptural feature, looking like a small head at the top of a long neck and giving the impression of some antediluvian fossilized Godzilla.

The Balfron Tower
As Nigel Warburton points out in his book on Goldfinger, the boiler house protuberance also looks like the kind of machicolations which used to adorn castle gatehouses and through which boiling oil would be poured onto unwelcome visitors. When combined with the irregularly spaced window slits, which look designed for archers to shoot through, Balfron has something of the feel of a Medieval keep. After the building was completed, Goldfinger and his wife Ursula spent two months living in a top floor flat. This was by way of testing it and the building as a whole out, learning at first hand what problems might arise once it was actually inhabited. In true champagne socialist style (he was a lifelong Marxist despite his well-heeled origins in pre-First World War Hungary) he invited the whole building up, floor by floor, for lavish parties in their flat. He seemed to take a proprietory interest in the residents, and wanted them to get to know each other from the beginning. Many had been housed from the local Poplar area, which had suffered heavy bombing during the war, and he tried to ensure that old neighbours weren’t separated (unless they wanted to be, of course) and were located on the same level as each other. One of the main problems which soon became apparent and was frequently mentioned by the residents was the inadequacy of the lifts. With only two in the service shaft, it could take an age to get up to your flat. Goldfinger addressed this when designing Trellick Tower, adding an extra lift and thus learning from his mistakes (not that he would ever admit to them as being such).

This problem was exacerbated on the day we were there, since one of the lifts was out of order. The inside of the lift compartment was deep and narrow, so that you could really only stand one abreast if facing the door. For anyone with even a hint of claustrophobia this must be a nightmare, particularly if someone comes in after you, effectively trapping you inside. We were ascending to a flat on the top floor (the 24th, one under Patti Smith’s 25th floor – but the Americans are way ahead of us with high-rises). This was one of several flats in the Balfron which have been rented out at low cost to local artists with the support of the Bow Arts Trust while the whole building and the surrounding estate is undergoing extensive refurbishment under the aegis of its new landlord, the social housing group Poplar HARCA (Housing and Regeneration Community Association). The views from the balcony, framed by the straggly stems of the sunflowers sprouting tall from the built in plant boxes were stunning, a god’s eye sweep of the London cityscape with the blank facades of the docklands high-rises looming large in the peripheral foreground to the south (where JG Ballard had presciently located his residential tower block in his 70s novel High Rise). The sunsets must be astonishing from up here, and when night falls and the city lights up, I imagine the effect is just magical.

Robin Hood Gardens from a Balfron balcony
Looking to the left of the balcony, southwards but before your line of vision crosses the boundaries of the DLR and the river beyond, you get an overview of the Balfron’s brutalist neighbour, the Robin Hood Gardens estate. Completed in 1972 (the same year as Trellick Tower) it was the last major public project of Peter and Alison Smithson, the British architectural couple who, alongside Goldfinger, are most closely associated with the Brutalist style prevalent in the 60s and 70s. They were, indeed, credited with coining the uncongenial term, always liable to stir up controversy and perhaps intended to do so. No one really has a good thing to say about Robin Hood Gardens, least of all those who live there (although results do tend to differ according to who is conducting the survey). Balfron gained its grade II listing in 1996, despite the predictable hostility and outrage which attended the decision, but the line was drawn at Robin Hood Gardens, and its listing was turned down in 2009. It now faces demolition at some undetermined point in the future, despite a petition signed by a number of prominent contemporary architects organised by Building Design magazine. For the time being, it still stands, but there is a feeling that its days are numbered, with ‘regeneration’ plans up for grabs, and that it may well have been deliberately left to fall into disrepair for some time in order to favour such developments.

Robin Hood Gardens (Or Every Brutalist Structure For Itself) from Marianne Kuopanportti on Vimeo.

From above, it looks like a large vice or clamp, an impression which doesn’t diminish at ground level. There is a hummock of grassy ground in the centre of the two facing blocks, which looks a distended belly rather than the piece of pocket pastoral which was intended. It makes the playing of games impractical and adds to the general air of paranoia engendered by the panopticon plan of the estate, where you are constantly overlooked from all directions. You don’t know who might be lurking on the other side of the hill. There’s a claustrophobic sense that the cliff-like facades of the flats might be slowly moving inwards, pinching the ground up inbetween. When we walked through, someone was exercising a small dog on the green, all muscle and teeth. It looked like it could happily bite your foot off and hardly lent the public space the feel of somewhere you could relax and enjoy. It would have been easy to take a photo which placed the bank buildings of Canary Wharf (magical sigils HSBC and Barclay prominently displayed at their lofty summits) within the brackets of the estate’s walls, like a glacier moving with incremental but unstoppable progress towards its granite canyon. But it seemed like a cheap gesture to use people’s homes for such obvious symbolism. For what its worth, I don’t think it should have been listed, but Jonathan Glancey’s argument for keeping and finding an alternative use for it, such as student accommodation for the East London University, seems a reasonable one. A building which really does represent the ideals of an age, however far from the planned utopia the actuality proved to be, could then be both preserved and put to good use. You can see his well-balanced film, which takes care to avoid the partisanship which has characterised the highly partisan debate over the Gardens' fate, here. Martin Ginastie's short film 'Robin Hood Gardens (Or Every Brutalist Structure For Itself)' also looks very interesting.

Back on the DLR and eastwards to East India Dock station, a short walk from which took us past a flyover mysteriously free of traffic which was suddenly filled with the whoosh of a herd of brightly coloured cyclists rushing past as if fleeing from some fearsome predator, but in fact competing in a branch of the Tour of Britain. Turning away from this major arterial route into the new docklands, we took a smaller capillary into the old which took us to Trinity Buoy Wharf. The regularly stencilled direction signs, fashioned with a graphic designers eye and sprayed with gay abandon onto the concrete pillars of the DLR flyover and the walls surrounding the old warehouses and workshops were an indication that we were entering an arty zone which was only too proud to draw attention to itself and encourage visitors. You can soon see why. The wharf contains a fascinating jumble of buildings which serve a variety of purposes, but the area manages to maintain the unified feel of a pocket community (in the genuine sense, as opposed to the ‘communities’ which are regularly conjured in the language of management, PR and media and which have earned their own regular Private Eye column). The first building you come to is the old post war gatehouse, offices and mess room which have been converted into the small independent Faraday primary school on the first floor and artists’ studios on the ground. The school is colourful and cheery, compact and full of light with a roof garden on top.

Grounded Leamouth sculpture
Walking out on to the wharf itself your eye is immediately drawn to the two lightships, with their beacons raised high on iron towers, their fresh coats of paint shining resplendently red in the afternoon sun. These lightships (LV93 and LV95 for any lightship spotters out there) give a clue as to the wharf’s working history. It was the workshop for Trinity House, who had been managing English coastal markers since having been given a charter to do so by Henry VIII. The wharf had been used since 1803 for the manufacture, testing, storage and maintenance of shipping buoys, and later for experimenting with new lighthouse techniques. An open space in front of one of the lightships contained a variety of noisily ratcheting automata, rusting iron driven by primitive chuntering generators which set concatenations of chains and cogs into purposeful motion. A disembodied pair of angels wings flapped slowly up and down against the backdrop of a pylon on the opposite shore of the River Lea, failing to achieve lift off. A house fashioned from a petrol can unfolds like an aquatic bivalve shell to reveal a sleeping form on a bed at its centre. What at first looks like an orrery of oddly shaped planets reveals itself on closer inspection to be the disembodied components of a woman’s body, slowly turning in their orbits until they achieve a momentary conjunction of wholeness. Similarly, a man’s body is exploded into a cloud of fragments which then slowly draw back together, as if through the attraction of some invisible soul, but in fact through the slowly unfolding processes of its predetermined mechanisms. A fish with big feet trudges patiently and painstakingly through a prescribed circle. These kinetic sculptures also make clanking and grinding noises which invoke the aural ghosts of the wharf’s old working life. Concentrate hard enough and the faint echoing voices of old mariners and lighthouse keepers drift up like smoke spectres from the swirling waters of the Thames.

Trinity Buoy Wharf lighthouse
Turning away from this enclave of rusty motion you are faced with the old experimental lighthouse. This is the only lighthouse in London now, and was built in 1864 to test out new lighting and to train lighthouse keepers. Michael Farraday worked here and came up with a new design for lighthouse lights which solved the problem of the accumulation of smoke deposits blackening the glass and thus reducing the power and range of the beacon’s beam. The lighthouse is now one of the locations around the world where you can listen to Jem Finer’s Longplayer music, and was indeed the place where it was first housed. This is a piece conceived in the run up to the millennium which is designed to last for 1000 years. It uses a carefully calculated music system based around the combination of six two minute sections of a 20 minute 20 second performance of a piece of music using Tibetan bells. Each section is transposed from the original music and assigned its own particular pitch and duration. The simplicity of the original material allows for endless recombinations without the whole thing descending into a chaotic mess. Finer refers to the Tibetan singing bowls as ‘bronze age sine wave generators’, and the interaction between them, with the resultant creation of new sounds from layers of harmonics, effectively makes them a ‘bronze age synthesiser’. Computers are currently used to calculate the combinations which will play out over the 1000 cycle without any repetition, although a mixture of future technologies and human participation are anticipated to take over at some point, all things going well. With Tibetan bowls and computers, the bronze age connects with the silicon. This in itself creates an awareness of long time, the contemplation of the long future which is part of the music’s philosophical basis balanced with a parallel sense of a long past. The clear, bell-like harmonics of the bowls spread out like ripples on still water (‘where there is no pebble tossed’ as Robert Hunter wrote in the Grateful Dead song Ripple), their expanding circles of sound creating wavering interference patterns when they intersect with those from one of the other sound sources. All of this plays out in the dome of the lighthouse, in which you sit surrounded by discretely placed speakers. It feels as if the diamond panes of the encircling glass are themselves ringing in sympathetic vibration, sending waves of sound rather than light across the waters.

The music is a little reminiscent of Brian Eno’s Neroli recording. Eno had indeed been involved in some of the ‘think tank’ groups which discussed ideas based on the initial idea of a piece of music which would reflect a long expanse of time. Other musicians involved in providing ideas, and also in playing in the live performances of Longplayer, included David Toop and Max Eastley, who had collaborated back in the 70s on an LP released on Eno’s Obscure label, New and Rediscovered Instruments, which you can now listen to at ubuweb. Eno is also involved in related projects such as the Long Now Foundation, which contemplates a future within a 10,000 year framework, and which aims to build a giant clock which will act as an ‘icon to long term thinking’. Eno’s Bell Studies for the Clock of the Long Now imagines the chimes that this clock might produce both now and in the distant future. Both the Longplayer and the Long Now Foundation look to foster the idea of long time, of thinking about the future again. They’re an attempt to counter the short term thinking which has left the future withered and shrunken, as Michael Chabon’s excellent article at the Long Now Foundation’s website observes. An expanded temporal perspective might go some way towards creating a shift in philosophy and behaviour, even some kind of realignment of the human spirit. It would certainly allow us to dream again. Soaking in the sounds of the Longplayer at the top of the lighthouse, you can contemplate the sky and river and all the surrounding activity rendered dreamlike by its silence. The stanchions and smooth eggshell surface of the millennium dome, now the sponsor branded O2 Arena, can be seen on the other side, and its difficult not to believe that the Longplayer was in some way a response to the desperate last minute scrambling to erect a large and self-aggrandising monument to the moment which now stands (or sprawls) as a potent symbol of short term thinking. As we reluctantly left the eternal sounds of the bronze age synthesiser (but you can hear them here) and climbed back down the winding staircase, we emerged to hear a squealing guitar solo wafting across the water from the Arena. As I later discovered, the Ozzfest had just commenced. Lighthouse and Dome faced each other from opposite shores, different in form and different in content.

Container City

Around the corner from the lighthouse and the adjoining warehouse which used to be used as the chain and buoy store you come across the colourful pile up of container city. This is a block of small artists studios and workspaces built up from refashioned shipping containers, which are stacked up on top of each other. Connecting walkways and stairwells join everything together Portholes let in light and the old container doors are thrown permanently open to frame balconies, the circles and squares they create giving the block an interesting and varied visual pattern. The circles and squares It’s modular housing using cheap and readily available components, and is one of those ideas which is brilliant in its simplicity. The whole area has adopted the scheme and there are containers which are used for music rehearsal, for offices and for cafes and diners. It’s a variant on the old Nissan huts, but these look more sturdy and potentially permanent. There’s something a bit Scandinavian about them. They look like they might even serve for some scientific survey team encamped up at the North Pole. The idea has apparently caught on in Amsterdam, and California and Massuchusetts in the USA, as you can read in this Guardian article, but faces planning wrangles over here which have thus far prevented its widespread use.

Thames ziggurat
Having had a refreshing cuppa in the Driftwood Café and sampled some of the cakes on offer at the school’s stand (good God, they were gorgeous) we climbed back up to the DLR and trundled along to Limehouse, where a walk alongside the teeming roads leading on from the impassable Limehouse Link (which does now have a cycle bridge crossing) took us to Freetrade Wharf. This is a block of apartments which faces the river and was built at the height of the dockland development frenzy in the mid 80s to late 80s. We were greeted at the door by the concierge who directed us to a man who awaited us with hands folded before his immaculately pressed and businesslike suit. Both were impeccably polite but also looked like they would eject us without pause for breath should we prove to be unwelcome visitors. Flat 99 was open and overseen by the architect who had redesigned it for its inhabitant, turning it into a luxurious batchelor pad. Tailored to the needs and tastes of this particular person, it seemed cold and full of needless flash to me. There were pleasant views over the river, spoilt as ever by the towers of the Canary Wharf cluster. The flats themselves rise in two blocks intersecting at right angles to form the apex of a triangle. They are stepped in a ziggurat cascade, and with their earthy brown colour have something of an Incan feel to them. It all seemed rather shadowy on the balcony, perhaps because of this dark brick colouring, and inside seemed small and overcompressed, a rather mean space. 80s property development in a nutshell - just pack them in.

Park Lane Hotel - the silver gallery
Sunday’s brief foray took us to the centre of London, the Pope now having buggered off to Birmingham (did he have to get off at New Street I wonder? – probably not). Here we took a tour of the Park Lane Hotel, which opened in 1927 and is renowned for the splendour of its art deco design. We started off in the Oak Room, passed on through the Palm Court tea rooms, and went upstairs to see the Lord Peter Wimsey suite (the bath in which we were told Marlene Dietrich used to entertain from – which sounds apocryphal, but you’d like to think was true). This was in room 209, which was the address of Dorothy L Sayers’ fictional detective. We returned via the Tudor Rose room, where we were told the Queen had learned to dance (who cares, Marlene’s bath was upstairs). This led on to the Silver Gallery above the ballroom, which contained the most spectacular art deco features. These included the lamp fixtures, the door frames, the gold leaf which lined the walls, the banisters and railings and the very 20s take on classical murals. Every detail, in fact. We didn’t get to see the grade 1 listed basement ballroom, since there was a wedding going on down there. A succession of Indian men and women in beautiful clothes, all bright jewel-like colours and gold brocade, came and went and it was evident, as the words and mellifluous cadences of what to my ignorant ears sounded like a Hindu chant drifted up the stairs, that they had chosen the perfect setting.

The Serpentine Pavilion
There was one more architectural excursion before we headed back to the West Country a few days later. With a couple of hours to kill having arrived at Paddington, we wandered down through Kensington Gardens and had a coffee and a macaroon in the Serpentine Pavilion. This has become an annual feature in which architects from around the world are invited to erect a temporary structure behind the Serpentine Gallery, with Zaha Hadid the first to have been invited in 2000. This year it was the turn of French architect Jean Nouvel, who came up with a building which was a vivid and unmissable dash of red across the green of the park. The central sheltered area, with benches and a café, was overhung with an angled sheet of transparent red glass, which cast everything and everyone within in a deep red glow. The furniture was all red, so that when the sun was shining (which it really had to be for you to gain the full effect) the experience was almost hallucinatory, with edges seeming to blur and objects becoming less clearly definable from each other. Jean Nouvel’s most famous building, the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, shows a similar sensitivity to light, with its south facing glass wall patterned with photosensitive diaphragms which expand and contract to control the amount of sunlight shining into the interior. At the other end of the pavilion was what looked like a large Perspex box, its more translucent red walls allowing for a less intense enjoyment of the infrared end of the spectrum. It was always possible to see out of the pavilion, with views seeming to be specifically designed to give a contrast between the redness of the interior and the green of the park and the (hopefully) blue of the sky. The red communal table tennis tables out the front were a nice touch, too. It’s still up for a couple more weeks, so if the sun is shining, go and bathe yourself in a delirium of red light.

Red shadow

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